By Dominique Morisseau
I was in eighth grade. One of my most awkward phases. Of course I didn’t feel awkward then. Only sometimes.
When the eighth-grade class had to perform in the Black History Showcase at school, our English teacher made us all come up at lunch time to rehearse the different material and poems she gave us. Mine was Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise”.
This is my penultimate memory from eighth grade (besides that fight I got into with Vont Harden in Mrs. Gibson’s class and got a black eye—but I digress). I loved poetry and Mrs. Gibson knew I had a special knack for it. She knew to give me Maya Angelou. I didn’t feel ready. When I’d rehearse at lunch time, Vont, Jamar, and Jay would all be up there rehearsing their Gwendolyn Brooks poem. I had to try Maya out in front of them. I’d die with embarrassment. She had that line…that damn line that made me go from high yellow to pink every time I said it:
“Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise? That I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?”
I could barely get the word thighs out without hearing snickering. Like I really wanted to bring attention to “down there” in front of the popular eighth-grade boys whose hormones were raging out of control. Damn it Maya Angelou! Why that part? I’m already awkward as hell with big glasses. Now I have to say “diamonds at my thighs” in front of the whole school? Was she trying to kill my eighth-grade career?
I thought I would faint. At rehearsal, I had my best friend join me for moral support. We would laugh for many years at how I would get to the part “I rise, I rise, I rise” and my voice would be shaking so much it came out: “I riiiiiiiiiiisssssseeee, I riiiiiiiiiiiissssssssseeeee, I RIIIIIIIIIIISSSSEEEEEE.” Instant mortification.
But when the Black History Show came, somewhere the power of Maya Angelou’s words lifted me. It showed me who I was, and who I would become. It asked me, 14 years old and uncomfortable in my own skin, to define my womanhood before my entire school. To be resilient and fearless and unapologetic for being me.
I kicked ass on that poem! Had so much confidence. Even added a lil’ bit of my own stank and personal attitude to give it some flavor. And my peers, my PEERS, gave me love. The girls and the boys. I was hooked on Maya Angelou ever since.
I read her books. I got all of her poetry. I pretended I was Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice because I didn’t think Janet could possibly love Maya more than me. I found myself — my woman-ness — my faith in my own poetic voice through this woman. She was my poetic awakening.
Today, as I mourn this giant of a phenomenal woman…I think of the little awkward, creative Brown girls all over the world who may know themselves differently after falling into her love language…who may discover tools of loving even their own scars and tainted reflections…who may lose themselves fiercely inside her stanzas, and dare to be haughty enough to stand in front of the mirror or an entire eighth grade and say: “I rise. I rise. I rise.” – without cracking a single vocal chord.
mother of metaphors and meditations
mind magician – magic woman – meteorite
mountain rock river tree
moonlight now – mystifying us – myth and truth
may we echo your name – moving you into ancestry
Maya Maya Maya Maya Maya Maya Maya